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A recent article in the New York Times about the desire of Tess Gallagher, Raymond Carver's widow, to have Carver's stories published in their original, unedited form, has ignited a controversy over the slash-and-burn handiwork of his first editor, Gordon Lish. This contretemps has brought back memories of my own brief stint as Lish's editor.
It was Don DeLillo's fault. I was working for W.W. Norton in 1991 when he gave me a call. I'd had the privilege of being his editor on Libra, and we'd stayed friends. Lish had also been Don's editor at Esquire, and DeLillo had dedicated one of his novels to him. After some pleasantries, Don came to the point:
"Gordon Lish is looking for a new publisher."
"He's finished a novel, and I think he's broken through into new territory."
I had reasons to be both intrigued and extremely wary. As a college student all hot for literature I'd had my brain waves rearranged and my taste in fiction formed by the amazingly odd and disturbing stories Gordon Lish had published in Esquire as its fiction editor from 1969 to 1976. I still vividly remember the wave of existential disquiet that swept over me when I read Carver's "Neighbors" in those pages. What was that?There, and later at Knopf, Lish brought forth a new kind of American fiction—gnomic, stripped-down, psychologically charged but jagged and resistant to explanation—that would come to be known variously as "Minimalism" and "Kmart Realism." In addition to Raymond Carver, he'd published such striking talents as Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Joy Williams, Mary Robison, Cynthia Ozick, and, his maximalist odd man out, Harold Brodkey, while appointing himself "Captain Fiction"—a faintly ridiculous sobriquet that nonetheless captured with some accuracy his standing in the literary world.
Concurrently, Lish had gained notoriety as a teacher of creative writing, one whose classes bore more than a passing resemblance to such '70s-era phenomena as primal scream therapy (feel the pain!) and EST (no peeing!). In the foreword to his anthology All Our Secrets Are the Same, he defined his taste this way: "My principal concerns are paralysis, death, home, the things people live with, the violence that is in us, flight from all those concerns, a piece of brisk whistling in the long-toothed dark, and God, I just can't get enough of that wonderful stuff …" In the strict Lishian aesthetic, where silences often spoke more clearly than words, characters gave voice to their traumas with a kind of mute, cracked eloquence and off-slant detailing. "He did like kidneys, that was one thing," a young divorcee remembers of her ex-husband in a Joy Williams story. "He loved kidneys for the weekend lunch." Who knew that organ meats could have an emotional valence? This style spread through America's creative writing programs and literary magazines like measles through an elementary school, sweeping the conventional well-made story into the dustbin of literary history, or so it seemed. And that was all right with me.
Lish had also developed into a fiction writer of note, a calculating provocateur and something of a tummler. His first novel, Dear Mr. Capote (1983), took the form of letters from a serial killer inviting the author of In Cold Blood to write his story next. The book virtually invented a genre of novels featuring hyper-literary mass murderers. And Lish's short stories, first collected in What I Know So Far (1984), were, well, quite Lishian; one, "To Jerome, With Love and Kisses," was sheer genius, a hectoring lecture to J.D. Salinger from his estranged father demanding that Salinger stay more in touch, the way Phil Roth and Bernie Malamud did with their fathers.
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